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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Iconic Artist Talk: Meredith Monk

It seems like Meredith Monk has always worn her hair in braids. Sometimes several, sometimes only one or two, but always braids. It’s a fitting consistency for an artist who’s been just as unwavering in her artistic goals. Sure, there have been changes in scale, in personnel, and the occasional need for a magnificent tower with a double helix staircase, like artist/collaborator Ann Hamilton's. But always, it seems, to the same life-affirming ends: the celebration of the voice, prior to language; the use of the body as a sonic canvas; and the exploration of the universal archetypes with which these things timelessly resonate. All of that over the course of 50 years.

Monk will be at BAM on February 15 for one of our Iconic Artist Talks, and this is a great time to remember why at least one of those ends was so historically important. In the 1960s, instrumentalists had already long been experimenting with the “non-linguistic” underbelly of music (the equivalent of what Monk would do with the voice). John Coltrane’s Ascension, for example, traded slick bebop licks for the screeches and noises between notes; Györgi Ligeti’s Atmosphères engulfed the listener in clouds of sublimely dissonant sound. But the emotiveness behind both of those works was mediated by instruments. For a human voice to make those sounds—particularly a female voice—was unheard of. An instrument yelps and scratches and evokes the technique of the player; a voice does the same and it risks evoking madness and pain. When Monk came out with works like Dolmen Music in the 70s, she was allowing the voice to be vulnerable and emotive in a way that was completely brave and new. She was also forcing listeners to come to terms with the highly constructed images of women that had, until then, dominated the stage. No diva was she.

There are other remarkable things, of course. Like the fact that almost her entire oeuvre was transmitted orally without the use of notation, allowing her to go without an official publisher until 2001. But best to stop there and let some of her work do the talking. Check out these exclusive videos from the BAM Hamm Archives and, of course, Monk herself on February 15 as she revisits her remarkable career at BAM.

Meredith Monk's Quarry (1977), her first appearance at BAM

Meredith Monk's impermanence (2006)

More videos:
Meredith Monk in Peter Greenaway's "Four American Composers" (1983) series

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